Cultural Relations and Policies - Intercultural relations since the 1970s

That international cultural relations became an increasingly crucial factor in defining the world may be seen in certain remarkable developments during the 1970s. It was then that such broadly cultural agendas as the protection of the natural environment and the promotion of human rights came to be considered vital aspects of international affairs. The United Nations conference on the environment that was held in Stockholm in 1972, for instance, was a landmark in that the protection of the physical universe from pollution, or of wild animals from excessive killing, came to be viewed as a matter of concern to the entire international community so that nations and peoples would have to join forces to achieve these objectives. Likewise, the promotion of human rights, whether of "prisoners of conscience," ethnic minorities, women, the handicapped, or other groups subject to discrimination, was seen as something that required international cooperation to undertake. World conferences began to be held, with or without the sponsorship of the United Nations, that addressed the rights of these diverse groups. Under the circumstances, United States foreign affairs, too, were becoming broader; not just the protection of security and national interests as traditionally understood, but the realization of a more livable world, both for humans and for the ecological system, would become an objective of foreign policy. President Jimmy Carter sensed these changing circumstances when he launched an initiative to seek alternative, cleaner sources of energy and to ensure the protection of human rights worldwide, even in countries that were allied to the United States in the Cold War. Cultural questions, broadly defined, were increasingly attracting the attention of Washington and other capitals.

The 1970s were also a remarkable decade in that it was the time when cultural diversity became a matter of serious concern in international affairs and, at the same time, when the number of nongovernmental organizations mushroomed, to supplement and in some instances even to supplant the work traditionally carried out by states. The two phenomena were interrelated in that both reflected the growth of civil society and, by the same token, the decline of state authority. This was a circumstance that could be observed in the United States as well as in Soviet-bloc nations, among the rich as well as developing countries. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism and its challenge to the power of both the United States (as in Iran) and the Soviet Union (as in Afghanistan) is but one extreme example of the emergence of religious and cultural diversity as a factor in international relations. And the fact that neither superpower was able to dislodge the religious fundamentalists by force indicated the growing importance of culture as a determinant of foreign affairs. Since the traditional state apparatus was not well equipped or prepared to cope with the crisis, it is not surprising that a host of nongovernmental organizations emerged to respond to the situation. Many of them were engaged in humanitarian activities to alleviate the suffering of people caught in religious strife, while others sought to promote dialogue among different religious and ethnic groups. With respect to environmentalism and human rights, too, nongovernmental organizations grew in number and influence. One cannot discuss U.S. foreign affairs during the 1970s without taking these developments into consideration.

What such developments suggested was the possible emergence of a global civil society, a world defined by cultural forces, groups, and agendas, as opposed to the traditional world consisting of sovereign states. The latter world, of course, still existed and behaved very much as sovereign states had always done, seeking to protect and promote their national interests. But national interests were now more broadly construed than earlier, and soon many in the United States and other countries began speaking of "human security" as a shared agenda for all nations. Not separate national securities and interests, but common interests defined by shared values were coming to be seen as a desirable goal for all nations. But this was not all. Even outside the framework of sovereign entities, the key framework for international affairs as traditionally understood, many nonstate actors, including multinational enterprises and nongovernmental organizations, were coming to play more and more active roles throughout the world. Theirs was an arena for an interplay of economic, technological, and cultural forces that were not necessarily bound by national units or considerations. That arena came to be called an international civil society by students of international relations during the 1970s and the subsequent decades who saw in its formation a fundamental challenge to the traditional state system.

How the challenge would be met, and whether the international civil society would some day come to establish a more viable world order than sovereign states, were questions that fascinated statesmen and citizens alike as the twentieth century drew to a close. During the 1980s and the 1990s, there was much debate in the United States as well as elsewhere about the changing nature of international relations. Did the end of the Cold War presage the coming of an indefinite period of U.S. supremacy in world affairs? Or, on the contrary, were all great powers, even including the United States, destined eventually to decline? Which power would take its place if the United States ever did lose its hegemonic position? Such geopolitically oriented questions, however, were missing the point. They ignored the fact that international relations were increasingly being defined by nongeopolitical forces and by nonstate actors. Many of these forces and actors were cultural, broadly speaking. The globalization of cultural activities, ranging from information technology to the spread of fast food, was continuing with its own momentum, promoted by multinational enterprises, international organizations, and many other nongovernmental entities. Sometimes globalization provoked opposition on the part of forces exemplifying cultural diversity, but this was a dualism that had always existed, as we have seen. What was remarkable as the century gave way to the new millennium was that the dualism was coming more and more to determine the shape of international political and economic, as well as cultural, affairs. Cultural relations were no longer marginal pursuits, if they ever were. For the United States as well as for others, culture was coming to claim center stage as they conducted their foreign affairs.

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